Bhangra Rap

If one were to introduce college students to Pakistani pop, this song would have to make the cut as required listening. I say this despite the fact that it was not followed with a body of work built in its stead; that it is perhaps a genre unto its own but it is hard to trace direct links from this song to others that followed; and maybe it did not change cultural perception about what was possible with Western-style pop in South Asia (though more on this in a second).

The appeal of Bhangra Rap is driven by how unseriously it seems to take itself, allowing young and old to become audiences without barrier. It is plain fun.

But it also captures a timeless cultural image of Pakistani youth interfacing with global popular culture.

The lyrics

It took a while to transcribe these. Fakhr-e-Alam switches between Punjabi and English so quickly and frequently, talks so fast, that when your ears miss aural queues it’s hard for your brain to fill in the gaps. Thanks to Twitter friends that helped fill in the holes in my initial transcription. (Update on Aug 18 2020, thanks also to Shahir Ahmed who helped with missing lyrics and corrections.)

Come on everybody ao bhangra pao
aye bhangra passion hai ao nacho gao 
put your hands up in the air with me
naal sohni di kurri from lahore the city
paa ji aor mera naal tusi vi
together we’ll put bhangra fashion free
oh mein ha rapper slammer hammer vi
oh mein aan bhangra bhangra jammer ji
oh tenu ki hai maloom ke hai bhangra ki
it’s in the hearts of people of panjab di city
I’m a bhangra addicted human being
without bhangra jeena hai mushkil extreme

Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao
Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao (bhangra pao)

Aao ji ao put your leg in the air
everywhere you go bhangra passion is there
saaray zamanay wich popular beat
aao ji aao it’s a bhangra beat
bhangra rules the world of musical streets
par raag ‘n’ roll di hay apni wakhri seat
ao uncle aunty chacha mama saray meray naal
ao ji ao pao tusi bhangra meray naal

Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao
Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao (bhangra pao)
Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao

Now we’ve been bhagra paye-ing all this week
nalay jism karay dard kamar ho gayi ay weak
jaday main gaya doctor de kol ji
o doctor bolay dance more with the bhangra beat
ay hai apnay time di ay problem ji
bhangra is here you gotta learn to take the heat
panjabi bolo tay lagdi kinni ameer
pawein uttay kurtay te thallay blue jeans
jadon wi ai vajay ai funky beat
bhangra people all over the street
rock n roll is fine but not the bhangra beat
saray mil ke pao bhangra in your own feet
chacha mama nana dada saray utho meray naal ji
ao ji ao pao tusi bhangra meray naal
now aunty ji come on pao bhangra in your own speed

Heavy payo shor aur nacho pai on bhangra beat
jaise karni hai party all this week
bhangra jam karo chahay with both your feet
par ao ji ao sanu naiyo ai labni seat
we have found ik bilkul navi di oh cheez
but if you do it too much gonna hurt your knees
bhangra karda hi sub noon he bohat appeal
per aao ji ao as we've paid the fees

Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao
mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao (bhangra pao)
mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao

Ao ji mama chacha papa tusi vi
asa bethna together and talk about beat
main dasda hu tanu chahi di ki cheez
oh tanu chahi da treatment from the bhangra tree
ao ji ao asa karna hai ki
bend one of your good, good ol' knees
put your hands in the air fingers pointed to the sky
that’s how bhangra is prepared, oh my my

Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao
Nach nach nach nach ke vikhao
Mundeyo te kuriyo bhangra pao
Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao
Nach nach nach nach ke vikhao
Mundeyo te kuriyo bhangra pao
Mundeyo te kuriyo sab bhangra pao

The sort of things I think about are why this song is called Bhangra Rap and not Rap Bhangra.

Fakhr-e-Alam was right to title it the way he did, because the song is essentially rap. Bhangra modifies the rap, not the other way round. Of course if you really want to have some fun about making sure this is correct you would ask yourself what really defines bhangra and rap individually. As expected I have spent many hours ignoring life and thinking about these very pointless questions.

So what makes bhangra, bhangra? Bhangra of course refers to the dance, and I will not spend time defining that. The question more particularly is what is bhangra music? The simple answer is that bhangra music is music that makes you want to do the bhangra. This appears to be a tautology at first, but is more nuanced than that. Because you can’t bhangra to every song. Bhangra requires vigorous, fast paced, celebratory movement. The most important part of bhangra music therefore, like most dance music, is the beat. The beat usually appears in 4-beat cycles (or multiples of 4), and appears to be accentuated on beats 2 and 4. Characteristically this beat is played using a dhol. Various bhangra styles may then be accompanied with boliyan (chants), or more elaborate lyrics, and some melodic instrumental backing. At its core however, bhangra music is a dhol beat that will make you want to do the bhangra.

Bhangra Rap is really just a paean to the bhangra. So in simple terms, yes, the song is designed to get you to do the bhangra. But it is missing some core elements, a prominent dhol (most of the beat in the song seems to be a tabla), and the singing could arguably accompany a bhangra but do not seem to be designed to do so given the pace of delivery.

Rap, in the simplest terms, is spoken word delivered to a beat. The development of the style ties the rhythm of the words itself closely to the percussion, and is further characterized by themes historically tied to the rise of hip hop (and hence usually have a force or bravado). The line between singing and rap is not easy to define. Broadly rap is more about rhythm than pitch. Singing is the other way round, and will produce a more pronounced melody. I think what Fakhr-e-Alam is doing qualifies as rap. You could make the argument that there’s more melody to his delivery than you might expect in rap, but I think at that point we’re arguing a real edge case. There are songs of course where the distinction is challenging and has been the subject of interesting discussion.

Fakhr-e-Alam himself seems to spend more time in the video break dancing (some splits and moon-walking in there), than he does doing the bhangra. Though there are some bhangra silhouettes that appear a few times during the video. Fakhr-e-Alam is dressed like the stereotype of a rapper, not a bhangra dancer. Overall, the imagery of the video seems to substantiate that it is bhangra that is modifying the rap, not the other way round.

If you are an ethnomusicologist looking in from the outside, this would appear counter-intuitive. Why is it that the foreign art form seems to be acting as a host to the native art form? It is perfectly reasonable to expect that if you walk into a country that global trends would be slowly inculcated to what is already present. Instead, in this song rap (the foreign art form) seems to ethnicize bhangra, which was native to the singer and to the audience.

If you’ve listened to a lot of Pakistani pop you know this is not the only time this has happened. The very existence of the Pakistani rock scene is display of this fact. Junoon, the most local of local pop acts are known for ‘sufi rock’. Again, notice that it is the sufi that modifes the rock.

There are two simple explanations of this phenomenon. The first is that colonial history and the resulting world order has rendered global culture western-normative. So by default access to global culture, or ‘promotion’ to it, is defined by engagement with it from this perspective. It is only with extreme political and economic might that new cultural orders begin to take their own shape and center around themselves. Bollywood stands out as an interesting parallel here. The second is that globalized youth now find it easier to adopt global (née western) as its own because there is a lower barrier to entry. Through schooling, access to existing art, connection to future prospects, it is easier for urban youth in Pakistan attempting to make it big in the world to want to center their lives around western culture first. And at this point, the question of what is native and what is foreign begins to get a lot more complicated. Because despite this all, despite my over-intellectualization of this phenomenon, you cannot argue that Bhangra Rap or any other song like it is unauthentic. No other culture may find themselves represented in it, and few other songs will be so deeply attached to a generation’s memory as it.

So does it really matter whether it is Bhangra Rap or Rap Bhangra? Probably not. I’m just glad it exists.

(For what it’s worth, I think this section of Billo qualifies as rap ornamenting bhangra, not the other way round.)

Update Aug 18, 2020: Edited the lyrics based on comments from Shahir Ahmed. We still have heard a few lines differently, so it’s possible there are some errors. Will need Fakhr-e-Alam himself to judge this one for us. Follow up on this post, including more comments from Shahir, posted here.